Best of the Fest: Pearl Jam
Headlining Bonnaroo for the first time since 2008, when they became the only act to ever silence Kanye, and on the heels of an unfettered, "anything goes"-type tour, there were no limits for what Pearl Jam could have planned Saturday night. Would they play Ten and Vs. in their entirety? No Code backwards? Will new friend Jack White come out as a surprise guest?
Of the endless possibilities, Pearl Jam instead went with a simple, crowd-pleasing, non-stop, high-energy two-hour set that satisfied both longtime and hardcore fans as well as the majority of the packed crowd who probably weren't even born when Ten came out 25 years ago.
Pearl Jam unholstered immediately, first firing the bruising headbanger "Go" followed by the similarly breakneck "Save You." Knowing their audience, nearly two-thirds of Pearl Jam's 22-song setlist was dedicated to the band's first three albums; "Even Flow," "Corduroy," "Daughter" and "Jeremy" were all played during the main set, capped by a volcanic rendition of "Porch" that found Vedder rocking out with revelers in the pit. After a brief break, Pearl Jam returned for an eight-song encore, highlighted by a show-stopping "Black," a "Better Man" sing-along and their now-standard cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" with Vedder and his bandmates never stopping to catch their breath.
It is a marvel to consider the amount of duress Vedder puts on his voice in every song and yet, even two hours into the concert, it never wavers, like a starting pitcher still throwing 97 m.p.h. heat in the eighth inning. Vedder, at age 51, hasn't lost much off his fastball: He doesn't attempt the high notes on "Oceans" anymore, but his escalation on "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" is still perfect. Jeff Ament still runs full sprint all over the stage like he's training for a marathon. After performing "Alive" and "Porch" more than 700 times over a quarter-century, Mike McCready still goes to great lengths to ensure that every guitar solo is explosive and unique. There's a reason why Pearl Jam diehards happily scoop up the band's authorized bootlegs of every concert, like flannel-clad Deadheads.
Never one to mince words, Vedder the statesman used his platform to speak his mind. "There's a candidate out there who's talking about building a wall," Vedder said during a long speech slamming Donald Trump. "Maybe we should just build a wall around him. We'd pay for it, I'd pay for it. It'd be cheap." He also called out, by name, Tennessee representative Susan Lynn for trying to push a bill similar to North Carolina's controversial HB2 "bathroom bill" through the state government. Commenting on how this generation is more tolerant than its predecessors, Vedder said of Lynn, "Susan, you could be a part of history, or you could be history."
It might not have been the daybreak-pushing marathon set that Bonnaroovians were anticipating, but Pearl Jam's knockout performance went heavy on the durable songs likely be part of classic rock's backbone for generations.